The Long Duration Balloon Project — McMurdo Station

The Long Duration Balloon Project — McMurdo Station

After the more light-hearted tales of our geobears from yesterday, we are back to serious science today!  My goal is to teach you about a wide variety of things related to Antarctica and this blog post, although more technical, is very interesting science! Read on!

Each austral summer, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) conduct annual scientific balloon experiments, based near McMurdo Station.  The Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Project workshop and launch facility are located on the Ross Ice Shelf, near the old Willy Field Runway. 

Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Michele Limon, one of the scientists working out at the LDB facility.  Michele is part of the EBEX Project, one of three projects which has launched long duration balloon experiments this season.  He has been involved in two ground-based astronomy projects at South Pole Station.  This is his first season at the LDB site.


Michele is a researcher from Columbia University in New York City and he works on this project with scientists from the University of Minnesota.  Michele said that he was always interested in designing and building things.  He first became interested in radio astronomy while studying in Milan, Italy, his home city. 

Two other LDB projects this season, BLAST-Pol and the Super-TIGER Cosmic Ray Balloon Experiment, are projects from other universities around the United States. Each of the three projects has built a payload (a piece of equipment or multiple pieces of equipment) that has been launched into the atmosphere and will send back or collect data. 

The “payload” is launched with a specially designed, durable, polyethylene balloon designed to carry it on a path around Antarctica.  These gigantic balloons are about the thickness of a thin plastic shopping bag.  The science teams track and recover the scientific experiments suspended beneath the balloons. 

This season all three of the LDB projects are related to astrophysics. Here is a look at the assembly and launch site.


The LDB site has two huge building used for assembly of the experiments (remember, that’s called the payload).  These buildings are on skis, just like our containers for WISSARD.  There is a building for rigging the balloons, and also a communications center (the one with the two white balls on the top).


The site has bathroom facilities and a galley for serving lunch or snacks for everyone at LDB.  In the photo below, they were serving  Thanksgiving dinner!


Now let’s get down to the science!

The EBEX experiment will collect data about the electromagnetic radiation that’s left over from the Big Bang.  This radiation was first discovered at the AT & T Labs in New Jersey by two engineers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.  Their serendipitous discovery took place while they were experimenting in satellite communication using radio equipment.  Their scientific discovery was the most conclusive evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory up to that date.  Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.

For experiments taking place in Antarctica, equipment and instruments are shipped to New Zealand from a port in California.  In October, all of that equipment is sent to Antarctica as cargo on C-17 military planes.  The scientific teams spend six to seven weeks assembling their payloads, preparing them to be launched from the LDB site.  Here is EBEX in its beginning stages.




As the days went on, EBEX grew and grew.


Do you see that cylinder attached to the side of the experiment in the photo above?  It is a star camera built by one of Michele’s students.  Here is a closer look.


While teams of scientists were busy inside, other people tested the launch equipment outside.  This huge vehicle, nicknamed “The Boss” after Ernest Shackleton (whose men called him that), is used to hold the payload just before it is launched.  The ability to carry/lift a heavy load is critical for the launches that take place.  EBEX has a scientific payload that weighs about 6,000 pounds.  NASA’s equipment for the experiment adds another 2,000 pounds of electronics for communication, and support equipment for the flight.  That support equipment includes the parachute, separation package, and termination package.  I’ll explain those last two in a little bit.


Meanwhile, EBEX was moved outside for some testing.


The experiment was eventually covered in a layer of aluminized mylar, which protects it from the sun.  I thought the experiment might get cold as it goes up into the atmosphere, but Michele told me that the danger is that equipment will get too hot from the sun. The mylar shield reflects radiant heat away from the equipment.

EBEX was moved to the wooden platform called “the dance floor” where it was tested without the interference of any other metal around.  It actually does look like a regular portable dance floor.


On the day of a launch, Anne Dal Vera, who works at the LDB site,  sends up a special small balloon called the pibal (pilot balloon). She does this every half hour.  These balloons go from the surface to about 4,000 feet high.  Anne observes the pibal with an instrument called a theodolite.  It is a surveying instrument, leveled and calibrated to the direction north. 


The info from the theodolite travels by cable to the rigging building, where a computer converts the information in wind speed and direction.  This data is important because everyone needs to know which direction to lay out the balloon, based on the wind direction at launch time.


The balloon is inflated, using helium from large storage tanks moved out to the launch area.


The balloon is only filled to about 1% of its capacity, because it will expand as it moves up into the atmosphere. The balloons reach an altitude of approximately 113,ooo-114,000 feet above the ground.  They circle Antarctica for about 10 days.  At this time of year there is something called the polar vortex; winds circling Antarctica with a more regular wind speed and direction.  If you check the NASA site listed below, you can see how the three balloons currently circling the continent are basically following the same pathway.  You can move one image over another, and compare the paths and direction.  It is very cool to do this.

The balloon gets bigger…


And bigger…


And finally the balloon is released to lift the payload, which has been held in place by the Boss.


Once the balloon is aligned vertically with the payload, that payload is gently released to the care of the balloon.  Sometimes the Boss has to move forward or backward to adjust this take-off.  The balloon looks more bulb-shaped at this point, but eventually rounds out as it climbs and expands. 



I sketched out a diagram below, to give you an idea of how this all looks.  It’s a rough estimate, not drawn to scale, but I think it might help you understand the whole project.  The entire string of the balloon and all that is beneath it, is about 1,000 feet tall.


Once the balloon is launched, it starts to collect and send back data.  Scientists can track its progress. When the experiment has circled the continent, the goal is to have the experiment land somewhere as close as possible on the Ross Ice Shelf.  When the team makes the decision to land the experiment, they deploy the termination package.  The balloon is ripped apart at termination and separates from the rest of the equipment.  It is later retrieved on the ice shelf, along with the other bits and pieces of the project.  The balloon is not a reusable item. 

The parachute is automatically deployed at this point, and the payload drifts to the ground, supported by the parachute. Once the team is sure that the payload is on the ice shelf, they will deploy the separation package.  This makes sure that the payload is detached from the parachute.  They do not want the payload to be dragged across the ice shelf if a strong wind blows the parachute.   Parachutes used for this operation are reusable. 

Small planes (usually a Twin Otter to start) are sent out to recover the data first, and to assess the situation.  Next, all pieces of the experiment and parachute, etc. are retrieved by plane or helicopter, and brought back to the LDB facility. 

Michele told me that Antarctica is a great place to launch long duration balloon projects because balloons can be flown without disturbance, and can be flown longer than any other place in the world.  The sun at this time of year can supply solar power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Weather is much better here at this time of year compared to other locations.  No one has to ask permission of other countries to fly the balloons in their airspace; all scientific projects conducted here are approved by SCAR (the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research).

The video clip below is quite a large file, and I hope you will be patient with it loading on your computer.  It is worth it because you’ll see the balloon being launched and the payload being lifted.  It is not the EBEX experiment, I think it is Super-TIGER.  But it does give you the idea of how the launch would work.  At one point someone’s hand is in the way, but stick with it, the payload is lifted up shortly after that part.  Also note that that balloon is all of the clear/white “string”  —  all the way until the red part.  When the balloon is fully inflated, it is as big as the Houston Astrodome. 

Thanks to Michele for the interview, photos, and videos.  Enjoy and talk with you tomorrow.

16 responses to “The Long Duration Balloon Project — McMurdo Station

  1. Wow, that baloon launch is very cool. The excitement for those who labored to design, assemble, and execute this event must be a rush.
    I had no idea this activity was a staple of the Antarctic Program of research. Thanks for sharing it. I was curious how they tracked the pieces of the baloon as well as the parachute for recovery?

  2. Hi Betty,
    I’ve meant to reply to several of your posts, but you send them too fast for me! I’m going to use the holidays and a six-day cold for an excuse right now. I’ll save ‘old and slow’ for later. There have been several posts that have brought back memories from my time down there. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go back and review your posts, take a few notes, and work up a reply – or two or three.

    I’m bowled over by how many things you’ve been able to witness and report on. We weren’t allowed to do much more than our jobs during the summer I was there. Snowmobiling and skiing were out of the question. I think that was probably aimed at the ‘winter-overs’ a little more than the summer ‘tourists’. The command didn’t want any of us getting hurt and have to be replaced. Especially, late in the summer. Actually, I had been a late pick. Apparently, the lead electronics technician that they had chosen to winter over had transferred to the command, and after a few weeks, decided that he didn’t want to go. So, they had to go with their second choice – me.

    If you have the time and the inclination, I have a few ‘stories’ that I put up about four years ago. Stories 3 & 4 are about my time on the ice and story 1 mentions it at the end. Reading them again, they probably contain a lot of what I would put in my replies to your posts. (

    I just realized that I hadn’t told you that I live in Schaumburg. I’ve been an adjunct at Harper since Spring 98 and have also worked in the Tutoring Center since Fall 2010. If you look at my sight, then I’m embarrassed to tell you that I have taught several Web development courses for the last several years. If you go to my home page ( , the links to ‘WEB 180 Project’ and ‘WEB 170 Project’ are ‘ice-centric’ projects I did for classes that I took when I wasn’t teaching. Keep in mind that the WEB 170 project was done as a joke.

    Anyway, that’s about it for now. If you do get a chance to look at my stuff, let me know and I won’t re-bore you with it. Take care and stay warm!

    • Hi Ken,
      Excuse my delay in responding…I am so busy each day…it’s hard to keep up. I did look at your information on the website….fun! You won’t bore me with anything Antarctic-related! We should get together sometime….I can meet you in Schaumburg…I go there quite often! Email me at Thanks for reading and responding!
      Oh, and I am able to interview a lot of people and be involved in more, since that it my job with education and outreach. I report on the science and things in support of the science, as well as history, places of note, etc. 🙂 I do learn a lot when I’m here, and I enjoy sharing that. Take care…keep reading!

    • Hi Chief,
      I was W.O. ’80. I went down on WinFly, so I got to spend a little extra time down there. I was also advanced to ETC during the winter. There were only two other chiefs there, so I didn’t get initiated until I got to my next command. Made the initiation a little weird.
      When were you there?

      • Hi, Chief,

        Three summers. Got to the Ice in Oct ’73 and left NSFA Spring of 76. I ran the ET shop on the Hill. Also, bar tended at the Chief’s club every 3rd night for all 3 deployments.

        DF was the best tour, by far, in my 21 years in the Navy.

      • Ken,
        Long time. But believe it or not I just emailed Dr. Crane not 5 minutes ago. I have email from several of us that Wintered Over 79-80 at McMurdo. Regards, Mark Webster(then MS2)

      • Hey, Mark! Yeah it has been a long time. So long, that I had to stop and think who Dr. Crane was and why you were telling me that you had just emailed him. It finally came back to me. I live in the Northwest Chicago suburbs – about 20 miles from where Betty teaches. And, after the bit of weather we had yesterday, I always compare it to the winter we had, and I realize that it ain’t so bad! I’ve just recently been in contact with Gerry Davis and Stan Ogrodnik, but that’s about it. I’m still kicking, just not as high and as hard as I used to. I hope all is well with you and the last thirty, or so, years have been good.

    • Hi Chief,
      I really enjoy hearing from the OAE’s and about their experiences here on the ice, especially all of you who were in the Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze. Thanks for your service in the Navy and thank you for all you did here in McMurdo. 🙂

  3. I love the graphic you drew. That was really helpful to explain everything. Hard to believe it can travel around the whole continent undisturbed! That’s a LONG way – SO impressive! What an innovative method of collecting data! How does it stay afloat for so long?

    • Hi Julie,
      Thanks for the comment on the diagram. When Michele drew the same diagram in my notebook, it helped me understand the process. I thought it might help others understand as well. The balloon is filled with a lot of helium, and expands as it rises. The polar vortex winds at this time of year carry it around the continent. It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? Love you! xo Mom

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